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AFP terrifies MPs with ‘net pr0n tales

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According to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Federal Police has warned a group of Australian parliamentarians that the country’s planned National Broadband Network (NBN) will “make it harder” for them to “track people downloading and sharing child pornography”.

The AFP has warned the parliamentarians that too many service providers and service bundling are the problem. Triple-play services (with TV, Internet and broadband under a single account) are particularly terrifying, apparently.

When misinformation is on such a sprint, it’s hard to know where to start the chase.

Bundling, for example, isn’t new. If you wanted a triple-play service today, you would wrap everything together under a Telstra account. Or you might settle just for Internet TV services offered by a number of ISPs, who also (coincidentally) offer telephone services.

Second, the number of service providers in Australia is falling and is likely to fall further when the NBN is rolled out. Our host of small ISPs is partly a legacy of dial-up days, when localization made a lot of good sense. The market has consolidated rapidly in recent times, with iiNet CEO Mike Malone quoted as saying 200 providers had exited the market in the last couple of years.

If for no other reason, the adjustments needed to live in an NBN world will probably be too much for a marginal provider with only a thousand customers.

Next, there’s the question of anonymity. In responding to the AFP’s discussion, some Senators seem to think that the NBN will somehow make customers more anonymous than they are now. This is complete nonsense.

Let’s look at the path between customer and the Internet: the NBN will connect to a specific home (with a specific home-owner or tenant); that connection will deliver services from one or more service providers, each of whom will know the customer who is using their services.

Apart from speed, the NBN doesn’t change much about the relationship between different layers of the network. Today, the Layer 2 connection is (mostly) delivered over ADSL, and is then handed to the ISP to handle Layer 3 services. The NBN merely replaces this with fibre.

So just how anonymous is an IP address that’s associated with a physical port? Exactly no more or less anonymous than it is today.

What on Earth prompted the AFP to talk such nonsense to the group “Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse”?

One answer could be that the AFP didn’t: that the information came from the audience, not the AFP, and got scrambled on the way out. Note, for example, that the only direct quote from the AFP was fairly neutral (and attributed only to a nameless spokesperson). Most of the other quotes came from Senator Bill Heffernan, who was in the audience.

So it’s quite feasible that the presentation was scrambled in between the AFP and the Fairfax press – and because the journalist Richard Willingham is just another political reporter in the swarm, he lacked the means to question the information.

The other explanation is more sinister: that the AFP is trying to scare politicians – picking out an audience that can be expected to be receptive to tales of the Big Bad Internet – to further its own agenda.

Australia is already considering adopting data retention laws in line with the European Data Directive. Parliament has also made it easier for ASIO to share information with other agencies, in legislation that was supported by the AFP.

So it’s hardly surprising that with a new network on the way, the AFP would start tilling the soil and planting the seeds that might one day yield a fine crop of new interception and wiretap powers. ®

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